I recently caught up with Christine to talk about her debut novel, the influences of Shirley Jackson, Gillian Flynn and Gothic literature, and the appeal of unreliable narrators…
You once described Wake Up, Maggie as a story "about a sad lady." Can you talk me through the genesis of the story? How did it come to you?
I'm shocked at how often I "pitched" the book that way. It's sort of telling and very evasive; probably not the best approach. Honestly, it just kind of happened. I wish I had a better explanation! The titular Maggie came about because I wanted a dynamic protagonist that was at times sympathetic, but also totally dislikable. I wanted someone weak and strong and awful that would mess with how the reader felt about the fictional person they're on a journey with. All the other pieces just fit together. It was super unplanned.
In terms of fleshing out the original idea, how did you set about expanding it as a story - what was the writing process for you? Did you plan everything out, or did it all just flow together once you started writing?
I just sat down and wrote. I made notes and thought ahead, but there was never a chapter by chapter breakdown. I remember talking to my mother and saying, "I don't even know how it's going to end!" And I didn't. There was a point in the early chapters where I didn't feel like I knew the characters well enough to predict what they'd eventually do. There was a real feeling that they existed outside of me, and I was just watching them.
How did your exploration of this young woman, whose mind is completely unravelling, and her haunting experiences affect you? Was this a cathartic experience? An exhausting one?
It was mostly exhausting and sometimes embarrassing. But sure, cathartic as well. During editing I would read passages back and burst into tears. Or I would find myself equally horrified and understanding of Maggie's handling of a situation. Sometimes I related a little too much I think!
I adore Shirley Jackson, so that's an amazing compliment. I read The Sundial when I was young and it scared me half to death and I didn't know why. I loved it. I'm a massive admirer of Gillian Flynn. She handles her protagonists in such an amazing way. She manages to populate addicting stories with morally ambiguous, imperfect characters. And she makes them relatable. There's something about that - making a reader relate to someone they are repulsed by - that I find beautiful. I could go on and on about Richard Matheson and Kafka and even The Twilight Zone. I am inspired by irreverence and characters. And movies.
While it is a very contemporary story, there are aspects that hark back to classic Gothic literature, I’m thinking in particular of 'female Gothic' literature and its notions of a persecuted female protagonist. How do you see Maggie - as the protagonist/heroine – in terms of archetypes? Where is her place in modern fiction?
I didn’t know I was writing a piece of Gothic literature until someone else told me. And then it was like, "Duh. Of course!" I'm not sure where Maggie fits in. I'd like to think she lives somewhere between Rebecca's The Second Mrs. de Winter and Gone Girl's Amy Dunne.
You did something very brave while delving into Maggie's psyche - she isn't always a sympathetic protagonist, but somehow you still ensure the reader understands her motivations. How do you see her in terms of the concept of ‘the unreliable narrator’?
I am a total pushover for an unreliable narrator. So there are certainly aspects of that here. But I felt that if Maggie was a venomous snake without context - without reason - she'd just be this caricature of a "bitchy" woman. I never wanted that for her. She isn't nice, but she feels she has reason. It's sort of up to the reader to decide if they agree.
It was important to me, and it was deliberate to a point. Maggie is undoubtedly haunted. But, and then we come back to the unreliable narrator, if Maggie isn't sure of reality, how can you be?
Maggie’s house is arguably a major character in the story. In her mind it appears to taunt her and manipulate her. It seems to know more about Maggie than anyone. Of course, this could just be her projecting her own fears and paranoia into her immediate surroundings. How do you view the house and how important is its role within the story?
Jeez, I don't know if I could say it any better. So I'll fumble through an explanation... The house is Maggie's whole world. She gets lost in her mind, and she projects that outwards onto the house. The house, and the idea of "home" in general, is something that Maggie struggles with. So, and this ties into the previous question, the house is Maggie's mind, and they're both haunted. This question got me thinking!
Your prose is beautifully sparse and lends itself well to the ambiguity of the story. There’s nothing that feels unnecessary. How difficult was it to edit the material? How did you decide what to keep and what to cut out?
You flatterer! This is going to sound ridiculous, but editing for content has never really been a part of my process. When I type it out, I know if it belongs. If it feels clunky or unnecessary I abandon ship. I rewrite passages if they don't flow, but for the most part, once I walk away from a chapter it's done.
I don't know who it will appeal to! I think it unfolds differently depending on the reader. But there’s no way to predict what folks will respond to. I just wrote what was in my head. If it speaks to someone, then that's amazing. But I know it isn't for everyone, and that's OK! I'm happy with the end result.
What is next for you? Are you working on anything at the moment?
I've got some half-formed ideas kicking around my head. Hopefully those will translate into something. But right now I'm working on a book of short stories, and again, that's more for me than anything. I'm not sure if the world is clamoring for it. But who knows?
Wake Up, Maggie is available now from Amazon - you can download it to your Kindle, or purchase a good old fashioned hard copy.
Keep up to date with Christine on Twitter.